A Personal History of Darby’s Rangers
James J. Altieri
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2014, 318 pages
Book Review published on: January 13, 2017
The Spearheaders: A Personal History of Darby’s Rangers by James J. Altieri depicts the exceptional soldiers, tough training, and the attrition of sustained combat operations by Maj. William O. Darby’s Rangers, America’s first commando unit of World War II. The book is an account from Altieri’s personal memoirs and written from an enlisted man’s perspective. Altieri would rise through the ranks as an original member with the 1st Ranger Battalion and would eventually become a first sergeant and company commander of Fox Company, 4th Ranger Battalion.
Altieri enlisted on 8 October 1941 and joined the 68th Field Artillery of the First Armored Division. While serving with the First Armored Division in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, he volunteered for the 1st Ranger Battalion, which had been activated on 19 June 1942. Altieri was among many soldiers selected from several U.S. units in England who were willing to take the challenge posed by this new unit. He details the rigorous selection process and the realistic commando training received from their British Commando counterparts. The Rangers’ realistic combat training in Ireland and Scotland in 1942 resulted in success and the development of new tactics. Altieri sheds detailed light on the Rangers’ training in amphibious operations, weapons familiarization, and grueling foot marches—all of which honed them into a fighting force that would achieve success on the battlefields in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy.
Throughout the book looms the personality of William Orlando Darby. An artilleryman, Darby was the first commander of the 1st Ranger Battalion and put his stamp on the unit through his personal involvement in all facets of their training. Always at the front of the most grueling movements, Darby pioneered night raid tactics that brought the Rangers their early and dramatic successes. Darby was ferociously loyal to his Rangers. Alteri relates with pride that Darby twice turned down promotions to remain as the 1st Rangers commander.
The Spearheaders highlights Darby’s gift and what distinguished him from other combat leaders of this era—his ability to recruit, organize, and train future Ranger battalions. After the North African Campaign, Darby and his officers and noncommissioned officers chose to seek out prospective Rangers rather than rely on other units to provide volunteers. He and his battalion leadership avoided existing combat units, most of which were either at the front or likely to see combat soon, and instead focused on the replacement depots and rear echelon formations in Algeria and Morocco. By April 1943, planners within the War Department gave approval to expand Darby’s new Ranger Force to three battalions (1st, 3rd, and 4th battalions) for the campaigns in Sicily and Italy.
By the end of January 1944, Darby’s Ranger Force ceased to exist as a fighting force, after the disaster at the battle of Cisterna. Darby’s night infiltration attack neutralized a German staging area for an all-out drive to smash American forces in the Cisterna sector but found the 1st and 3rd battalions surrounded and cut off by tanks and numerically superior forces. Darby, with the 4th Battalion as the Reserve, tried desperately to reach the trapped Rangers. Darby’s key failure at Cisterna was the lack of good intelligence. The Rangers unknowingly entered an area that had become heavily reinforced by veteran German units from the eastern front. Lightly equipped Rangers without proper support were no match for battle-hardened mechanized German units.
While elementary in style, Altieri presents personal experiences and insight as an original member of Darby’s Rangers. The Spearheaders is a necessary read for any student of Ranger operations in World War II, as you can study the early formation, training, and employment of this elite force.
Book Review written by: Adam J. Carson, Fort Gordon, Georgia